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2014, Aaron Elson



9 Lives: An Oral History

The online edition

2014, Aaron Elson

cov-9lives.jpg (4837 bytes) "... an absolutely wonderful collection of WW2 Vets' stories! Aaron Elson has collected some of the most exciting and informative stories I have yet to read on the European Theater. This book is basically a group of mini-memoirs that range in scope from paratroops to tank personnel to frontline infantry. Each one tells his or her (yes women did serve!) own story in his or her own way but all of them are fascinating and will give you a different glimpse of how average americans saw the war. You will enjoy this one!"

--Amazon.com reviewer

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Chapter 1

Arnold Brown

Company commander, 90th Infantry Division

Owensboro, Ky. Sept. 8, 1997

    They say the infantry is cannon fodder. This is true. And I was in a specific situation that would bring this out.

    There was a certain village that the division thought it was important to capture. They knew that it was occupied and filled with Germans, and it would be too much for an infantry force alone, so they were going to use an armor and infantry team. But there was some critical terrain on the left of this village that they wanted to secure.

    My mission was to take my company across this open field in front of this village, go over a little ridge, and take the woods on the other side.

    I don’t know what is there, but I know that I’ve got to make this attack with my right flank exposed, and close enough that the Germans can fire at us. Of course, we’re going to have them under artillery fire. And we were so close that some big hunks of shrapnel from that artillery fire fluttered across and landed among us, but that’s the chance we had to take.

    I organized two platoons forward, and I said, “When we leave this covered position, we’re not going to stop until we take our objective.” Because I knew if we ever stopped in that open field, we’d be under a crossfire.

    This is strictly an old infantry assault - standing up, marching fire to the front; my third platoon was in line where they could march-and-fire sideways into a building on the right.

    We launch this attack and sure enough, here comes some fire from the village, but we had enough artillery fire on it to make them inaccurate; they couldn’t enjoy their shooting. Then on this little ridge where the road came down a couple of Germans jumped up and ran back to those woods which were our objective. As we came over the ridge, I could see some white smoke rings coming from the edge of the woods, a couple of hundred yards away. So I started yelling to the men, “Fire everyplace you see those smoke rings!”

    One of them said, “That’s our own artillery!”

    I said, “That’s enemy artillery!”

    And it was. Because then they depressed those guns and started firing at us point blank. They fired at my right platoon, and they missed the men and the projectile went into the ground and exploded. The ground was soft. These were guns placed there to knock out tanks, so their shells didn’t let out as much shrapnel as the regular 88.

    I was still moving forward, and I was close enough that I could look down the muzzle of the gun that had fired at my right platoon. If I’d have been a private I would have hit the ground. I would have disobeyed the company commander’s orders. But what could I do? As the company commander, I could never show any fear to my men. So I stood up and moved forward. But ours was a small group, apparently, so the gun swung over and fired at my left platoon. It got a direct hit on a man; blew him all to pieces. The biggest part was a leg from midcalf down with the combat boot on; it blew it up in the air a few feet and it fell, and when it landed it looked to me like it kind of quivered. I can close my eyes and see that today.

    When the Germans saw they were not going to stop us, the gun crew put their hands up. And I said, “Shoot the sonofabitches!” At the time I was so damn mad that I wanted to. But my men didn’t do it. They took them prisoners. The other German gun crews left their guns and ran down through the woods, and my men were chasing them trying to shoot them down, and I finally had to stop them because they were getting scattered out and disorganized, and the Germans might be going to attack us.

* * *

    I was born and raised in Ohio County, Kentucky. On a farm. I was a teenager back during the Depression years. I got tired of eating cornbread and molasses three times a day so I decided to go into the Army. I left home with 50 cents in my pocket and an eighth-grade education. I went out in the bushes and waited till the first freight train came through, and when it slowed down I jumped inside one of these boxcars. It was dark inside, and there was a professional hobo in there. He said, “Where you goin’, sonny?” Like to scared me to death. But he turned out to be a very nice hobo, because he told me when and where to get off the train when I arrived in Louisville so that the security forces wouldn’t pick me up. Otherwise I probably would never have made it into the Army.

    In those days, we were an all-volunteer force. Some of the men were individuals like me, and there were other young men who would get into some type of minor trouble with the authorities. A judge would give them a choice of paying their fine and spending 15 to 30 days in jail or going into the military. So a lot of them would take the military. And in those days, the basic training in the military was to weed them out; in other words either make a man and a soldier out of them or out they would go. Later on, I ended up being a recruiting instructor in the same outfit I enlisted in. And this was quite a problem, because as a corporal in those days I had more authority than the majors had later on as far as disciplinary actions were concerned. If we had a problem recruit, we could take him down and put him in the guardhouse and leave him there overnight, with no charge. He didn’t know how long he was going to be there and this would scare the heck out of him. When he came back, he’d turn out to be a good soldier. Can you imagine trying to do that today in this type of Army? No.

    While I was drilling recruits, I had trouble with one soldier. I did everything I could to discipline him. One of the things they would allow us to do was to have the recruit hold a rifle over his head and run down to the parade ground, around the flagpole and back, and if you do this for a little while you’re really tired out. I had him do that a few times and it didn’t help, so I reported him to the lieutenant. And the lieutenant said, “Take him behind the garbage rack.”

    If you had a problem with an individual, they had an area behind the garbage rack where you could fight it out, as long as you used your fists, and when it’s over you’re supposed to get up and shake hands.

    I said, “Did you look at this one? He’s over 6 feet tall and he’s from the mountains” up in Virginia. These are some of the comical things.

* * *

    I enlisted on March 18, 1936. And it took me a year and 11 months to make private first class. But it wasn’t too long after that until I made corporal. The reason I got promoted was that a World War I sergeant committed suicide, and this left a vacancy for sergeant, so when they promoted one of the senior corporals, it left a vacancy for a corporal.

    I proceeded and got to buck sergeant, served as platoon sergeant, and I was getting ready to leave the service. I’d already met my future wife. I was stationed at Rockford, Illinois, and I was going to be separated from the service in March of the following year. In the military at that time a sergeant made $72 a month. On my pay I certainly couldn’t afford a wife, so I was planning on getting out. I was in a position where I could take a trade school, and I qualified and even had a job lined up. I didn’t want to wait, so we decided to get married.

    We got married on Thanksgiving Day. It was November 20, 1941. On December 7, Pearl Harbor was attacked, so I couldn’t get out.

    Everyone was real mad at the Japanese, and volunteers were pouring in. The volunteers were just about as plentiful as the draftees were. It unified the country. In other words, this was a war that we had to win.

    It’s been said that compared with later wars, World War II was a good war. There’s no such thing as a good war. World War II was a “must” war. We had to win. I think even among those who were in combat there was never any doubt in our minds but that we were going to pursue it until we won.

    After Pearl Harbor, they started calling in reserve officers. Now, I don’t want to put any reflection on any individuals. They were educated, they were smart, but they knew very little about the military. And there was this one lieutenant, he was reading in the manual, trying to learn something. He said, “I understand why we have officers and non-commissioned officers, but who are these ‘Bar’ men?” Browning automatic rifles.

    I thought, “Good gosh, these people are going to be leading me in combat?” And here I already had five years of training. So I applied for officers candidate school.

    You had to make 110 on the Army General Classification Test to qualify, and they also required a high school education. They had a board of officers there to make the selections to OCS, so they observed me in my handling of my platoon, etcetera, and they gave a waiver for me to go OCS at Fort Benning, Georgia, in spite of my not having finished high school. And I might add that I graduated in the upper 10 percent.

    When I graduated, they assigned me to a new infantry division that was being formed. They sent five of us shavetails into this company, and the company commander gave us a form to fill out, giving our experiences and our preference of assignment. I put down “rifle platoon leader.” I’d been a platoon sergeant and I knew the platoon A to Z, so I knew I could handle this job in spite of my limited education. All the other officers put down company executive officer. Well, who do you think they chose for company exec? I should have known, because that’s the Army system: If you want something, tell them that’s what you don’t want.

    After being in that position for three months, they promoted me to first lieutenant. It wasn’t long after that until they were forming another new division, so now we had to send a cadre to this new division. The company commander called me in. He said one of us would have to go as a company commander in the new division. Then he said, “Since this is my first company, I’d like to stay here.” In other words, I had no choice. I was cadred out to help form another division.

    After holding that position for six months they promoted me to captain. So when I first went in, it took me a year and 11 months to make private first class; now I go from second lieutenant to captain in 11 months. I said, “I must have been a dumb private and a smart officer.”

    At the time I got my orders to go overseas, I was working for the assistant division commander. We were running rifle platoons through a live firing field problem and I had to rate them as to whether they were qualified for combat. If they weren’t, they had to go back and take some more training.

    I was able to rate all the platoons except one. This platoon did everything wrong as far as issuing their orders and taking advantage of the camouflage. Everything they did was wrong except one thing: They hit every target. So I went to the assistant division commander, a general, and asked him to help me make this decision. And he wasn’t much help; he’s still going to leave it up to me. This is what I said: “The cover of your own rifle fire is the best cover you can have, and when you’re killing the enemy they’re not killing you. So how can I rate them unsatisfactory?”

    He said, “Good.”

    So we rated them qualified.

    This is what I was doing when I got orders on the 16th of June, 1944, to ship out as a replacement officer because of the high rate of casualties they were having in Normandy.

    They put us on a troop ship to ship to England, and we were in a convoy. There were so many ships in this convoy that you could look in any direction almost going over the horizon, and the freighters and tankers had the perimeter. In other words, if submarines made an attack on us they were supposed to take it rather than let them get to the troop ships.

    The ship that we were on was an old German ship that had been scuttled by the Germans in Africa, and we had salvaged it. We were out two days; our convoy was taking a zigzag course, and they were making a turn to the left when the steering mechanism on our ship went out. We couldn’t turn. And there was one of those tankers crossing in front of us. They put our ship in reverse and it was like it was jumping up and down to stop from hitting this tanker that’s filled with high-octane gas.

    I hoped they would turn around and take us back to repair the ship, because the convoy just went off and left us, but we were already at the point of no return. So they left us there and they left one destroyer with us. He was circling us all the time while we were getting our repairs done, and occasionally he’d take off and drop a few depth charges. I don’t know whether there was an enemy sub there; the radar picked up something, it might have been a school of fish.

    They got the ship repaired before daylight the next morning, and we caught up to the convoy without any further incident.

    We landed in England, but I was only there a few days because they needed replacements badly. They shipped me through and right on up to the front lines. It was so confused I don’t even remember the date, but it was around the end of June. They assigned me to the 90th Infantry Division. They assigned me as company commander of Company G in the 358th Infantry Regiment. This company had lost all of its officers and 50 percent of its enlisted men during a prior engagement.

    My mission was to organize replacements into this demoralized company and make an attack three days later. That was the most trying time I’ve had in my entire life. I thought, if I live through this, I’d have to have some help from the Supreme Being, and I believe He came to my rescue.

    After the reorganization, when we were moving up to the front, we were under long-range artillery fire. A shell exploded nearby and a piece of shrapnel struck a boy in the head. He was somewhere between 18 and 21 years of age. I can hear him today, his cry out and the way his voice trailed off as he dropped dead. He said, “Mommmm.” It gave me the chills. That was my first casualty. He was one of the 405,399 to be killed in World War II. He became a statistic. He was a statistic to everyone except his mother and his other loved ones. I’ve often wondered, how is the selection made? He hadn’t seen an enemy. He hadn’t fired a weapon.

* * *

    My first major battle was the battle of the Island of Seves. The regiment made two attacks on that island and they were repulsed with heavy casualties. The regimental chaplain put up a white flag and started walking across toward the enemy lines. A German officer put up a white flag and they met out in no man’s land. They organized a truce, so both sides could pick up their casualties and get medical treatment for them. They came back and took the white flags down and we started making more casualties.

    It was there that I learned my first big lesson.

    After making the first attack and getting ready for the second attack, there was one sergeant, I couldn’t get him out of his foxhole to join us for this attack. He was squatted down below ground level, and he was frozen with fear. After this attack, which was also a failure, I went back to check on him. There he was, crouched down in that foxhole in the same position I’d last seen him. The only difference was, he had a hole in his steel helmet. For him to get killed like that it took a treeburst artillery shell, and a piece of shrapnel had to go straight down into that foxhole. The lesson I learned was, if it’s your time you cannot hide. I decided that I may get it, but I’m going to be doing my job when I do. If he had joined us in the attack, he might be alive today. Of course, with the condition he was in he wouldn’t have been any help. Some people just could not take it. The public doesn’t realize all the types of killing there is in a war, and the ruthlessness of it. There are some men who couldn’t take it mentally, while other men who could take it, who knows why they could take it?

    After the two failures, the regiment wanted to make another attack - with just one rifle company - and they chose my company to make it. I wondered if the tactics were correct, because here’s a strong point three miles long. I was always taught that you attack the weak points, not the strong points. If you surround them, they’ll fall without any casualties. But here they’re going to order one rifle company to take an objective that the whole regiment had failed to take and one battalion surrendered half of its men on that island.

    They promised me a smokescreen and an artillery preparation so that they could blind the enemy and make him keep his head down while we crossed this open field and the river we had to wade to get to this strong point.

    I keep waiting for the smoke and the artillery and I never see it. The battalion commander orders me to go anyhow. I questioned him on that. And these are his words. He said: “If we don’t get some men on that island, I’ll be relieved, the regimental commander will be relieved, you’ll be relieved.”

    I said, “Colonel, I think my responsibility goes a little deeper than that. I’m responsible for 150 men.”

    I don’t remember saying this but in my mind I knew that was what I felt.

    He ordered us to go, so what am I going to do? Take a chance of being court-martialed for disobeying an order to go on a hazardous duty? I couldn’t do that. I remembered the old infantry credo - I said, “Follow me!” I thought it would be sure death, but I had no choice.

    I got out about 50 yards, and the Germans opened up on us with machine guns, even some tank firing. I look back, and there are three men following me. So I hit the ground. Now what the heck are me and three men going to do? I lay in a prone position, and one machine gun was cutting grass over my legs and I believe if he had searched up any higher he’d have cut the cheeks of my butt off. But he searched back and killed one of the men that were following me.

    Also, someone was firing at me with a burp gun; what we called a burp gun, it’s like our Thompson machine guns. It wasn’t high-powered and it was firing at its maximum range. So they’re on line with me but they’re falling about three feet short. The bullets were bouncing. I could see them. I was holding my carbine, and I felt something roll across my hand, and I caught three of those bullets. Now who’s going to believe that you caught three bullets in combat?

    After a while they stopped shooting. Either they thought we were dead or they could see that we were no threat to take the island. I told these two men to run back for cover, so they dashed back. I should have gotten up and gone with them, but I lay there until they reached cover. Then I got up, and these Germans were ready for me. I had three machine guns firing at me, like you see in a movie. They ripped up the dirt on the right side, the left side, I could hear the bullets like hornets all around me. And I didn’t zigzag, I just took off as fast as I could dash. It was fifty yards, and I didn’t get a scratch. So I figure the guardian angel was working for me there.

    They had an investigation after that. They had me make out a report on the battalion commander’s action. Now, pardon my General Patton language, but I said in the report that they were so damn screwed up that none of them knew what the hell they were doing. That’s the way I expressed it. The battalion commander got relieved of his command and so did the regimental commander.

    When I issued that attack order and most of my men refused to go, actually my sympathy was with them. They were correct. Suppose I order you to walk out in front of automobiles. Are you going to do it? To cross the highway with high speed automobiles? The principle is the same. You don’t have to obey an illegal order, and I wondered what my chances would have been if I had disobeyed that order.

Contents           Arnold Brown, Page 2

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